On Writing with Tamim Ansary
Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American author and public speaker, shares his thoughts on everything from the current state of the world to the role of the writer in observing and sharing.
As a writer, you are by nature a keen observer of the world around you and the human condition. We are obviously at a very interesting juncture in history. What's your current outlook on the world today?
I think this is a time of paradigmatic social change. By paradigm, I mean the one, whole picture of the world we share as a society — a deep web of assumptions we have (and don't even know we have) about how everything fits together. We are often unaware of this web of shared assumptions because we are so far inside of it that we can't see it.
As somebody once said, "Fish have been known to doubt the existence of water."
The world is changing so deeply, vastly, and rapidly right now that our paradigm can't adjust fast enough to keep up. For example, for the last 800+ years the West has been on the rise and the East has been struggling to keep up — and failing. Now, I think the tide is turning the other way.
Over the last two centuries, the "machine" has invaded our psyches in ways we would have never dreamed of four centuries ago. The empowerment of women is, I think, as seminal of a shift in the history of humanity as the so-called Neolithic Revolution — the era during which people figured out how to farm and started settling in villages instead of living on the move. The idea that one's gender might be a choice? When I was young, only sci-fi writers talked about such things. Now it has become an issue of everyday politics.
And to top it all, the line between ourselves and our technology has started to blur. We are merging with our machines. Even our most intimate emotions have been absorbed into algorithms. This doesn't mean the end is nigh.
It means the big picture of the past doesn't cut it. That big-picture won't help us make meaning of the world of today and tomorrow. Some new big picture is taking shape, and frankly none of us can see it yet. A new paradigm is invisible until it isn't.
In a small way, the world has been through this many times. Societies have unraveled and then reassembled themselves, but as something new. When the Roman world was coming apart, Europeans of the time surely felt like the world stopped making sense. When European traders swarmed all over China in the 19th century, the Chinese narrative couldn't explain to the Chinese how any of this made sense. But new narratives emerged to replace the old, and look at Europe twenty years ago. Look at China now.
The thing is, though, today we're not talking about this or that society. We're talking about the whole human species. We're one interconnected spaghetti of human lives, all of us all up inside each others' business, and we have to build—and are in the process of building — one big-picture view of the world that makes sense to all of us. We're not there yet — not nearly.
But it's the project we're all involved in, even if we don't think of it that way. If we succeed, we'll have built a world in which everybody is "us" and nobody is "them." Will we succeed? I don't know. It never looks promising when one is in the thick of things. And unfortunately we're always in the thick of things. But on good days, I'm hopeful.
You retired from the SF Writers' Workshop, but now you run a memoir writing class at your home in Bernal Heights. Why do you feel memoir writing, and in general perhaps sharing personal stories is so important?
I am interested in story. To me, every great piece of literature has a compelling story. The Odyssey was a story. Yes, many other things too, but first of all it was a story. The same is true of Crime and Punishment. Peter Pan. Middlemarch. All of them.
But what is story? Where does it come from? I think of life as story, essentially. What's real in life is the fiction that's embedded inside it. The fiction we read is distilled out of life. We know what tragedy is because life can be sad. We know what comedy is because life can be funny. Memoir means bypassing the fiction that we read and getting to the fiction that is really there.
Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." A friend of mine said, "The unlived life is not worth examining." But I say, "The only unlived life is the one that hasn't been examined." The story is there; the trick is to find it and reveal it.
Writing a memoir is all about mulching experience into meaning. And writing a story one knows in such a way that someone else can feel it and experience it and say, "Hmm. I see what you mean." That's what being part of the human community is all about.
When I had one-on-one writing sessions with you, you mentioned that my story was a sad one, and if I wasn't crying or shedding at least a few tears while writing, I wasn't writing the right story. As a writer, how do you know if you're writing the right story?
Did I say that? Ha! Well, I'll stand by what I said.
At some level, when I'm writing, I'm also the reader of what I'm writing. Those are different functions. The writer and the reader have to be two different people inhabiting the same body simultaneously. The writer has to write without inhibition or restraint as if no one is listening or judging; the reader has to listen as if he's not the one writing those words. On good days, those two guys are doing their work without paying any attention to the other.
The writer's job is to write; the reader's job is to hear and report honestly what he heard.
If I'm on the right track, Listening Guy is surprised, enlightened, delighted, moved or otherwise stirred by what he's reading. If Listening Guy is having those kinds of responses, I know I'm on the right track. Later, of course, I show what I've written to someone else, and if it falls flat (as it often does) I have to go through the complex process of figuring out what this other reader heard, and why it wasn't what I was trying to say..
In your opinion, and while this question may have a long answer: what is a writer's role? Is it about honing in on craft, or truth, or something else?
As I see it, the origins of writing are being in the world, perceiving what is happening, experiencing what is out there, reacting to it, seeing or feeling something about it, something that feels true, and wanting to tell someone else what it is you see.
If it's one person you're talking to, you're writing a letter. If it's the world you're talking to, you're writing for publication, which only means you're writing a letter to the world. At some level, those are not two different activities. You're telling someone what you see and hope they'll see it too.
What you can't do — in my opinion — is first decide what's important to the world and then write that noble and important thing. Anyway, I can't do that. All I can do I is write it and try to get it right.